Review by Sean Boelman
Earth Mama is the first feature film from Olympian-turned-filmmaker Savanah Leaf, and it debuted earlier this year at Sundance to great acclaim. Moments of brilliance permeate Leaf’s debut, yet the movie lacks the cohesion it would have needed to take it to the next level of emotion as Leaf clearly intended.
The film follows a pregnant mother in San Francisco who is struggling to make ends meet, as she fights against a system that threatens to tear her family apart. This is the type of movie that should be absolutely devastating, and while there are some moments that fit that bill, the script’s ups and downs make it not as resonant as a whole as it could have been.
Interestingly, Earth Mama wasn’t the only film to debut at this year’s Sundance to condemn the United States social services system, with A.V. Rockwell’s Jury Prize-winning A Thousand and One dealing with similar topics. However, the two movies’ perspectives are so distinct and refreshing that they can each stand out on their own. There is a deep sadness in Earth Mama that will hit viewers quite hard.
As can often be the case with many films that deal with emotionally-charged topics such as this, Leaf uses the audience’s pity as a crutch for otherwise shallow characterization. However, even though viewers will feel like they don’t know much about the character by the time the movie ends, there’s an undeniable air of authenticity to the story being told.
The film’s inspiration from Leaf’s short documentary (co-directed with Taylor Russell) The Heart Still Hums is obvious in the incredibly naturalistic feel of the visuals. Although there are a few moments — particularly during the third act — which lean into poeticism and have an almost surreal quality to them, these aren’t the moments in which the movie thrives. Instead, it’s the parts that plunge us into the bleak reality of this system that is destroying the lives of women and family.
However, like most features that are adapted from shorts, Earth Mama does struggle with its pacing. Leaf’s script feels like it was constructed around several key scenes, rather than as a cohesive whole. Although these standout scenes are certainly effective, the tissue that connects them occasionally feels like filler.
Undeniably the best thing about this film is the lead performance from Tia Nomore, whose performance is extraordinarily nuanced. There are lots of scenes in the movie in which Nomore could have easily leaned into the histrionics and turned the film into a melodrama, yet she consistently shows an exceptional level of restraint — which is all the more impressive considering that this is her first ever role.
Earth Mama is an imperfect directorial debut from Savanah Leaf, but the moments that are impactful are so powerful that it’s hard to deny Leaf’s skill behind the camera. Once she is able to work out some of the kinks, she could become a voice to be reckoned with in the indie scene.
Earth Mama opens in theaters on July 7.